The NFL has an officiating problem. However, it doesn’t want any employees of its teams to point out the existence of the officiating problems.
Rams linebacker Clay Matthews, who was flagged for a roughing the passer penalty in Week Five that didn’t actually happen, has been fined $12,500 for criticizing the league’s officiating on Twitter, via Adam Schefter of ESPN.
“The storyline for the 2019 season continues to be the refs inability to make the accurate and correct calls week in and week out,” Matthews tweeted early Tuesday, after a Lions-Packers game that included multiple bad calls. “Al Riveron continues to blindly side with his refs and the current status quo. Something must change! Zero accountability.”
There may be zero accountability for the officials, but there’s now plenty of accountability for players who criticize them.
That’s not the way it used to be. At one point, the league office told PFT that players would be subject to fines only if the players make comments that attack the integrity of the officials. The NFL broke from that approach in 2016, when Washington cornerback Josh Norman received a $25,000 fine for saying in a post-game press conference regarding field judge Brad Freeman, “You suck.”
Said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy at the time, “I can’t recall the last time a player was fined.”
Now, two of them have been fined in one weekend, with Matthews joining Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield.
The league’s position is that nothing has changed, and the league forwarded to PFT the following the policy entitled “Offenses Against Game Officials.”
Here’s what it says: “Sportsmanship and respect are at the core of our game. Showing genuine respect to teammates, opposing players, coaches, fans, and others involved in the game are important values and support our commitment to game integrity. This commitment to respect is particularly important in the context of our Game Officials. Public criticism of our Game Officials has long been unacceptable in any forum because it calls into question the integrity of, and public confidence in, our game. Public criticism of officiating or Game Officials by players or club employees is prohibited. . . . Violations may be subject to League accountability measures, such as fines, suspensions, and/or the forfeiture of draft choice(s), including for first offenses. In addition, a direct, personal attack on a specific Game Official(s) or statements that serve to impugn the integrity of a Game Official or officiating as a whole will result in more significant accountability measures.”
To summarize, officials make mistakes. And everyone points them out, including folks like NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent and employees of the NFL who work for NFL Media. But players face fines for doing so.
The league has an officiating problem. Heavy-handed tactics directed to players who react to the specific instances that reconfirm the officiating problem may not be the ideal way to solve it. Instead, it creates the impression that the NFL is trying to hide something.